This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.
Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.
You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $39.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.
The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 10, No. 153
February 4, 2019
On June 6, 2018, Julian Edelman was suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing-drug policy.
Last night, Julian Edelman was voted the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl 53.
There is some pushback on that contrast this morning, but by and large, Edelman’s positive drug test and suspension have not been a part of the Patriots’ story this season. They have been, at most, a parenthetical during the team’s run to the Super Bowl, and were not an issue during the game last night. Edelman was essential to Tom Brady’s offense, targeted 35 times in three playoff games, hauling in 26 catches for 388 yards. In the aftermath of last night’s MVP award, the conversation was more about Edelman’s Hall of Fame chances than it was about his suspension.
This couldn’t happen in baseball, of course, not anymore. Players suspended under the Joint Drug Agreement are rendered ineligible for postseason play in the season of their suspension. This additional punishment came about, as all of baseball’s drug policies have come about, when the magic-baseball-pills wing of our game got hold of policy. That group reacted strongly to Jhonny Peralta and Nelson Cruz playing in the 2012 postseason after serving 50-game suspensions. As Ken Rosenthal reported, “One concern among players was that the benefits of PEDs extend beyond the period of usage, providing an additional competitive advantage. As one union official put it, a decision to use PEDs is ‘a work-related choice that calls into question the integrity of your job and the game being played on the field.’ ”
It’s helpful to consider the two sports’ policies in the context of the leagues' labor relations. Back in 1987, the NFL broke the NFLPA by using replacement players to beat a player strike. The nation’s football fans didn’t love the product, but they didn’t reject it, and with each passing week of the four-week strike, the games being played weakened the union’s resolve. When the players returned to work, their union was forever neutered. A union that can’t sustain a strike is effectively a house union.
The largest effect of the NFL strike was the imposition of a payroll cap that guaranteed the players a set percentage of the league’s revenues. Players would no longer be negotiating with their teams for the best deals, but rather, competing with each other for their shares of a fixed pot of money. The more in the pot, the more for everyone. By breaking the union in 1987, and creating this system, the NFL had no more need for an adversarial relationship. The league’s drug-testing program and policies also came out of the 1987 conflict, and have remained largely the same since: A player who tests positive gets a 30-day (now four-game, effectively the same) suspension.
Failing a drug test in the NFL is a misdemeanor. The league issues its press release, the player performs an act of contrition, and everyone moves on. Shawne Merriman was named to the Pro Bowl in 2006, a season in which he served a four-game suspension for failing a drug test. Julius Peppers was suspended under the PED policy in 2002; he retired over the weekend and will almost certainly end up in the Football Hall of Fame. Roger Goodell doesn’t shame these players, the league’s press doesn’t call their accomplishments tainted, there are no endless discussions about what these violations mean to the children of America. The NFL has a far healthier, far more proportionate attitude about performance-enhancing drug use than MLB does.
In baseball, the league tried to break the players’ union by using replacement players during a strike, and it was laughed out of the room. The 1995 exhibition season played by strike-breakers was the low point of a labor strategy seemingly derived by putting a biography of Jack Whitehead through Google Translate a half-dozen times and working off the end result. Having failed to bring its own players’ union to heel, MLB’s owners stumbled on a successful strategy in the early 2000s. By painting the players as cheaters, and encouraging the perception that sports drugs were ruining the game, and the players using them villains of the highest order, MLB wrong-footed the players for the first time since they hired Marvin Miller.
You can trace baseball’s labor-market issues today to the shift in power that occurred during the PED fights of the last decade. That dynamic -- “the players are cheating cheaters who cheat” -- runs through everything. MLB, under Bud Selig, did everything it could to keep the idea front and center, from the laughably one-sided Mitchell Report, to Selig observing Barry Bonds’s 756th home run with his hands in his pockets, to turning every failed drug test into a demand for even harsher punishments. We have to go through this in every single Hall of Fame cycle.
MLB has kept this story alive because it’s been a lever against the players, the first one they’ve had since the reserve system was shattered in 1975. Dividing the MLBPA into players angry about PED users, and everyone else, served to weaken what was once the most powerful union in sports. In each CBA cycle since 2002, MLB has taken back economic ground while keeping the public’s focus on the images of cheating ballplayers who need to be policed, and punished, heavily. While suspensions went from nothing to ten games to 50 games to 80 games, the penalties for going over the luxury-tax threshold increased in kind, the limits on the amateur market increased in kind, the ability to make money without winning games increased in kind.
What replacement players did for the NFL in 1987, fights over steroids have done for MLB since 2002. You cannot separate the disparate treatment of drug-policy offenders, both internally and externally, from the labor dynamics of each league.
Violating the drug policy in the NFL is a misdemeanor, because it serves the NFL for it to be a misdemeanor. Violating the drug policy in MLB is a felony, because it serves MLB for it to be a felony.